AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly 4,000 Mainers will run out of unemployment benefits next month, and the number will grow to over 17,000 in the months ahead if Congress does not extend benefits. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation support an extension but say it will be a battle to get it approved by the end of the month.
“We hope Congress acts and acts soon,” said Labor Commissioner Robert Winglass. “We are sending out notices to those that will be exhausting their benefits.”
He said the agency is bracing for an expected increase in out-of-work Mainers seeking a job before their benefits run out. He is urging employers with jobs available to contact the Department of Labor’s career centers to list those jobs.
Over 23,000 Mainers were receiving unemployment benefits of all types Thanksgiving week with an average weekly benefit of $278.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said talks have been under way over both the structure of an extension as well as how to pay for its cost.
“That’s something we are going to have to evaluate,” she said in an interview. “Hopefully there is a way of paying for it and that is just one of the issues that will come before Congress in the remaining weeks of this session.”
Snowe has supported extensions in the past, even when the cost was not fully offset. But, the cost of extending the federal unemployment benefits costs is estimated at $45 billion. Another measure under consideration that some lawmakers want to tie to the extension is bailing out those states that borrowed to pay unemployment benefits. Maine was not one.
The estimated cost is $7 billion.
Snowe said that while an extension is important, getting companies to start expanding and creating jobs is more important. She said that is why she continues to push for comprehensive tax reform.
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said there are several proposals before Congress to extend benefits and that he will push to have an extension passed before the end of the month. He agreed with Snowe that extending benefits should not be confused with needed efforts to stimulate economic growth.
“There has been very little job growth,” he said. “Part of it is because Congress has not been able to get its act together.”
Michaud said it is important that training opportunities also be expanded to help the unemployed. He said many do not have the skills they need to get hired.
One measure in the House would extend benefits through all of next year, but keep the maximum cap of 99 weeks of benefits that is in current law.
There are also proposals to extend benefits for less than a year, including one by President Obama to extend benefits for 26 weeks. The regular unemployment benefits that are paid for by the state unemployment trust fund are for 26 weeks.
“As long as the unemployment rate nationally remains so high, I think we are going to have to have further extensions of unemployment insurance,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She said with the economy still sputtering, the unemployment safety net needs to be maintained.
Collins said she is concerned at what she has heard from some employers.
She said some in Maine have told her unemployment recipients have not accepted jobs when offered.
“I think we need to take a look at that,” she said. “That certainly does concern me.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she supports an extension and wants Congress to act swiftly to avoid a repeat of last year when Congress failed to act and Congress restored benefits retroactively.
“It’s a big problem for all of those that are out of work, and it is a big problem in Maine,” she said. Pingree said a disruption in benefits will cause serious problems for families that are already having difficulty providing food, shelter and warmth in a Maine winter.
Winglass said while he was not in office when a retroactive extension was passed, Department of Labor staff has told him it was a “real mess” to administer and that there was a delay in getting benefits to the unemployed workers. He said the agency will try to minimize any disruption if Congress does pass a retroactive extension.
A study released last week indicates unemployment benefits have been exhausted by millions of Americans. While there is no state estimate for the total number that have exhausted all of their benefits since the recession started, in October there were 1,207 Mainers that exhausted all benefits.